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Pain, physical or mental, is an alarm bell, trying to tell us that something needs to change. In the case of cancer patient Denise Tam (pictured), she realised “there was a lot of unspoken pain which I didn’t address”. Photo: Denise Tam

‘Invisible pain is something you can’t speak about’: why we need to admit that mental pain affects us physically, and how to relieve it

  • Invisible pain is something we can’t put our finger on. It can be caused by buried feelings, trauma or high self-expectation, people tell a panel discussion
  • We go to doctors to find the source of our pain without thinking about the mind, a psychiatrist tells the panel. His prescription? Be gentler on ourselves

Denise Tam was 26 when she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Alongside her treatment, she looked into how foods can help heal the body. After changing her diet and lifestyle, she went into remission. But a year later, the cancer was back.

“After the second diagnosis, I took the time to understand my invisible pains, which were from childhood. There was a lot of unspoken pain which I didn’t address, coming from an unstable immigrant home in Canada,” said Tam.

As a young girl she became a “yes child”, setting aside her own needs to keep the home as peaceful as possible. But the price of suppressing her emotions and pain was high. “It led to an adolescence trying to escape from the home and escape from the pain, essentially going into alcohol and drugs,” said Tam.

She was speaking in a panel discussion, Invisible Pain, Visible Healing, organised in the lead-up to the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong’s (AmCham) Women of Influence Awards in late November.

Psychiatrist Dr Hui Lung-kit spoke in the AmCham panel discussion. Photo: Jonathan Wong
Pain is physical and mental, says Hong Kong psychiatrist Hui Lung-kit, who also spoke in the panel discussion. During his eight years in private practice, he has seen many women who have consulted family doctors, herbalists and acupuncturists, looking for the source of their pain, before they come to him.

“When they have different pains, they go to different doctors, but never think about the mind. So, when they come to me, I explain to them there are at least four linkages between the mind and the body,” said Hui.

Can you eat your way to happiness? How gut, brain are linked

The mind-body paradigm is the biological basis of how mind and body work together. The four linkages Hui refers to are the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary bodily functions, such as the heart; hormones, including the hypothalamus, pituitary, thyroid and sex hormones; the immune system, which explains how, when you get an infection, you may also get depressed; and gut-mind interactions.
For Olivia Cotes-James, founder and CEO of feminine care brand Luüna Naturals, her “invisible pain” was tied to her menstrual cycle. She had her first period at the age of 12 and for years struggled with the shame of heavy periods, which not only prevented her from engaging in sports which she loved, but also gave her terrible acne.

It wasn’t until her mid-20s that she discovered that it was the material used in tampons and menstrual pads that was causing the yeast infections and discomfort she’d suffered from for years. In 2019 she founded Luüna Naturals.

Olivia Cotes-James is the founder and CEO of Luüna. Photo: Luüna

“So few people know how deeply linked the menstrual cycle is to our experience of the world. Mood swings are very real and, by being dismissive, we are preventing people from getting the health and support they need,” said Cotes-James.

Invisible pain takes many forms. Zoe Pena, president of the American Women’s Association of Hong Kong, says that, as a Filipino, invisible pain can show itself differently.

It’s hard being Filipina in this city. Invisible pain is something that gives you a pause and you can’t speak about it. If there’s a societal or a cultural barrier that stops you, you think, ‘I can’t take the space’ (to be myself as a Filipina in Hong Kong),” she said.
Zoe Pena is president of the American Women’s Association of Hong Kong. Photo: AmCham
Stand-up comedian Maitreyi Karanth recalled an aunt who was in an abusive relationship. When she was pregnant with her third child, her husband kicked her in the stomach and told her to leave the house and not come back until she’d had an abortion. She complied.

“She coped by making herself so small and now she doesn’t recognise her pain,” said Karanth.

Pain is there for a reason; it’s trying to tell us that something needs to change, something needs fixing. Our body is trying to help us live our best life – mentally, physically, emotionally – and ignoring the pain is ignoring the alarm bell.

Stand-up comedian Maitreyi Karanth recalls an aunt who coped with her abusive husband by bowing down to him. Photo: Maitreyi Karanth

So what can we do? First, identify the pain and where it comes from. Consider whether it’s physical pain and if it might be related to stress.

“Be clear that mental pain affects you physically and physical pain affects you mentally and be kind to yourself with regards to that,” said Tanya Venkatraman, corporate business development manager at Azure Risk, who moderated the discussion.

We have moved on from the notion that professional women have to grin through the pain and climb the corporate ladder and best each other, says Pena.

Mental pain affects you physically and physical pain affects you mentally, says Tanya Venkatraman, corporate business development manager at Azure Risk. Photo: AmCham

“The narrative that we are in it together, that we have to have each other’s backs, is relatively new to most women,” said Pena. “Ten years ago I wasn’t this woke. I didn’t know I could be a kind manager.”

When we have pain, and underlying stress, it is often because we place too high expectations on ourselves, we are too perfectionist, said Hui. He encourages people to think about their self-dialogue, the words they use when they talk to themselves, and consider gentler, more accepting self-talk, such as saying “It’s OK, never mind”.
“Using this self-dialogue is a solution to reduce your stress. Be more accepting of yourself and the pain will be relieved,” said Hui.

‘Don’t hide fear’: how cancer survivor beat illness – twice

The spoken word is sound, and sound is vibration, says Tam, now a holistic nutritionist. She encourages people to think about the power of words – the words they use when they talk to themselves and others.

When she was having an MRI scan during her cancer treatment, she applied that strategy to herself.

“Full body scans are very long, and you can’t move, so I practised not just visualising, but speaking out affirmations of myself – ‘I am loved’. It’s not just about mindful thinking, your thoughts, but can we speak it out loud so we can hear it and our cells receive it?” said Tam.

Venkatraman asked the audience at AmCham to say “I am loved” out loud – an important step towards healing for men and women.

Try it now: say those three words out loud to yourself and enjoy the healing vibration of loving words.

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